OTTAWA — Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh aired his grievances Friday about the link between COVID-19 outbreaks and ineffective paid sick-day policies, claiming conservative premiers have “completely failed people” on this file during the pandemic.
Singh and members of his party have continually pressed the federal government for months to take stronger measures on paid sick leave, despite provincial and territorial governments’ jurisdiction on labour codes and employment standards.
Pressed if his message would be better directed at Ontario Premier Doug Ford than the federal government, Singh said provincial leaders share responsibility for the issue as the COVID-19 crisis continues.
“There’s no doubt that conservative premiers like Doug Ford have completely failed people,” Singh said of provincial governments’ reluctance and delay in introducing guaranteed paid sick days during a pandemic. Only Quebec and P.E.I. have permanent paid sick leave policies.
“They have failed and they need to come up with ways to support people and businesses,” he added. “There is no question: Doug Ford has failed, as well as (Saskatchewan Premier) Scott Moe, (Alberta Premier) Jason Kenney, they’ve been failures.”
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Singh, who spoke to reporters after a caucus meeting, outlined three items that will be high on his radar when Parliament returns next week: the vaccine rollout, protecting seniors, and ensuring easier access to paid sick days.
His criticism comes the same week a temporary agreement came into effect in Alberta, making symptomatic nurses eligible for paid sick leave “for the duration of their illness or for the applicable isolation period” until March 31.
According to the Decent Work and Health Network, 58 per cent of workers in Canada do not have adequate paid sick leave.
Doctors and advocates have warned COVID-19 transmission in workplaces is fuelled by inadequate policies, which force symptomatic front-line workers who have no paid sick days to choose between continuing to work to make end’s meet or staying at home without pay.
It’s a Catch-22 scenario that health officials have identified as problematic during a pandemic.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, called earlier this month for the government of Ontario to provide no less than 10 paid annual sick days, describing the policy as “essential” to protecting “the health of individual workers, their workplaces, and the broader community.”
The federal government passed legislation in the fall to implement the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit to provide $500 per week, for up to two weeks, in financial support to workers who don’t have paid sick leave, and need to take time off work due to COVID-19.
But that program is temporary, insufficient and cumbersome, according to Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.
“The federal sickness benefit is simply not the same as provincially legislated paid sick days,” Coates told HuffPost Canada. “Guaranteed paid sick days are available to every sick worker who needs them, ensure sick workers do not experience any income disruption, and enable workers with any symptoms to stay home to keep communities safe.”
With the federal program, workers have to wait until they’re sick to apply for benefits and people who miss less than 50 per cent of their work week are ineligible, Coates said.
“Provincially legislated, employer-provided, paid sick days make the decision to stay home easier to keep workplaces and communities safer.”
Peter Bethlenfalvy, Ontario’s new finance minister, told reporters Friday the topic has come up in conversations he’s had with his federal counterpart, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
“Right now it takes a fair bit of time to get that money into those who’ve applied successfully for those funds.”
Ford has previously indicated that there’s no current need for the province to introduce its own paid sick days policy during the pandemic when the federal program has had low uptake.
Asked if it’s incumbent on the provincial government to step in if the federal sickness benefit isn’t working to curb COVID-19 infections, Bethlenfalvy spoke generally and said it’s important to get money to those who apply for the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.
“Right now it takes a fair bit of time to get that money into those who’ve applied successfully for those funds,” he said, adding the provincial and federal governments are working together to ensure funds get into the “needy hands” of applicants.